Snowflakes twinkled in the morning light as Abby stared out the living room window. The house felt refreshingly peaceful with no one else awake.

The Christmas tree looked like it had been decorated by cannon fire. Ornaments dangled on the verge of freefall. Ligatures of tinsel choked the branches. Poorly-wrapped presents scattered the floor like battlefield casualties. Her mother had obviously decorated the tree.

Abby heard footsteps and turned to see Mitch amble into the living room.

“Hey, Mab,” she said.

“Hey, Mab.”

As toddlers they had combined their names into one. They were twins, and though Abby was only 16 minutes older than Mitch, she had always felt protective of him. Mitch was a shy boy, sensitive, the frequent target of their father’s hyper-masculine tirades. Mitch was also smaller than her, but she had learned in school that girls grew up faster. Maybe one day he would be taller than her, bigger, stronger, but now she would have to be strong for both of them.

Mitch stood beside her, watching the snow.

“I wish they wouldn’t get up,” he said. “I wish all these presents were for you. From me.”

“We’re going to escape this year,” Abby whispered. “That’s the best present of all.”

“I hope you’re right.”

She hoped she was right, too. She had told him to trust her. Told him their special present to their parents would set them free. She had felt very strange making the present. But Abby loved Mitch and would endure anything for him.

Suddenly, Riley, their mother’s eight-month-old yellow lab puppy and new best friend, crashed into the living room, a shoe dangling from his mouth. He dropped the shoe and attacked the nearest present.

“Riley, leave it!” Abby scolded.

Riley dropped the present, immediately found another one.

“I don’t care,” Mitch said. “Let him eat all the fucking presents.”

“Riley!” Their mother sashayed into the room, her bathrobe flapping open, a highball glass in her hand.

The dog ran over to her, thrusting his face into her crotch.

“Who’s Mommy’s good boy?” their mother cooed. “Who’s the best boy?”

“That fucking dog took my shoe,” their father said, storming in. He snatched the shoe off the floor, glaring at his wife. “Drinking your breakfast again?”

Their mother did not respond. Their father stomped off into the kitchen.

“Merry Christmas?” Abby said to no one in particular.

“Merry Christmas,” their mother said to the dog. “Who’s been a good boy this year? Riley has. That’s right.”

Riley wagged his tail into her outstretched arm, splashing gin on the carpet.

The kids sat silently against the foot of the couch, side-by-side, as if they were one body, refusing to sit on the couch lest one of their parents sit down beside them. Their father began a laborious campaign of making coffee, emerging a short eternity later with his cup and a rolled-up newspaper. He slapped the dog with the newspaper.

“What are you doing?” their mother cried.

“Bad dog!” their father shouted. “Don’t eat my goddamn shoes.”

“He’s just a puppy!” said their mother.

“Then train him.”

“Maybe if I had a little help. Maybe if you spent any time with him, or walked him, he would respect you more.”

“He doesn’t know what respect is,” said their father. “He’s a dog.”

“You’re a dog.”

Their father slumped into his recliner. “Let’s get on with it,” he said.

Their mother immediately stood up and strode into the kitchen. Their father turned and frowned at the twins.

“What?” Abby asked.

“Why are you kids sitting on your floor?”

“Why can’t we?”

“Why don’t you just sit on the couch?”

Their mother returned with a fresh highball, a skewer of onions pinched in her fingers. “Don’t wait for me,” she said.

Their father picked up a present, turned it over in his hands. “Looks like a raccoon wrapped this,” he said.

“Do your own wrapping if you don’t like it,” said their mother.

Their father said nothing. He plucked presents off the floor, glanced at the tags on the wrapping paper, and tossed them nonchalantly to whoever they were for. Riley tried to bite each one in mid-air.

“Riley, leave it!” Abby shouted.

“Give him the wrapping, he likes it,” said their mother.

Mitch did not say a word. He unwrapped his presents like a machine, set them robotically on the couch behind him, out of sight.

“None of these goddamn clothes are my size,” their father said.

Their mother wrapped a scarf around her neck that she had evidently bought for herself. She sipped her gin and tonic and made little wet smacking sounds with her lips.

Abby reached under the tree and picked up the present she had gotten for Mitch. She didn’t want her father to throw it, or the dog to catch it.

“Here, Mab,” she whispered, nudging her brother.

Mitch quietly peeled away the wrapping paper, revealing a new set of headphones.

“They’re noise-cancelling,” Abby said. “The guy at the store said you wouldn’t hear a gun go off.”

Mitch reached out his foot and gently pressed his toe into hers. “Thanks, Mab.”

The pile of presents dwindled under the tree. A few more gifts remained, including a sizable square box. Their mother rose on shaky legs and hefted the box into her arms. She set it down roughly on their father’s lap.

“This is for you, Todd,” she said. “You’ve earned it.”

Their father glared up at her as she stumbled back into her chair. He gently shook the box. “It smells like shit,” he said.

Abby glared at both of them. Mitch put on his new headphones.

Their father tore into the wrapping paper like it had insulted him personally. He threw it to the floor, grasping the cardboard box underneath.

“What in the hell is this?” he said, his face contorted in a sour grimace.

The room began to smell like Riley had left a “present” on the rug. Abby put her face down her shirt and took a deep breath of clean air.

Their father lifted the top off the cardboard box and screamed. He stood up so suddenly he stepped on the dog. Riley cried out and ran for cover.

“What the fuck is that?” their father cried.

“What does it look like?” said their mother.

“It looks like shit!” He kicked the box across the floor.

“It is shit,” said their mother. “It’s a month’s worth of Riley’s shit. And not just Riley’s. I pooper-scooped the whole neighborhood.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” their father yelled.

“You refuse to walk him, and you won’t clean up the yard.”

“He’s your dog!”

And you’re a lying asshole.”

Abby had known this was going to happen. Well, not this specifically, but some disgrace. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Mitch shivered beside her. She squeezed her brother’s hand.

“You know what?” their father said. “I’m glad you gave me this, Beth. Glad. Because now I won’t feel so bad myself. In fact, next to you, I feel like a christened saint!”

Their mother waved her drink at him. “Wear yourself out,” she muttered.

“I was going to feel bad, but now I feel great,” their father continued. “Now you get to open your present.”

He reached under the tree and picked up a large, flat, rectangular object, wrapped in “Happy Birthday” paper. Abby had wondered what the one incongruously-wrapped present was. She had assumed her father simply hadn’t had the wherewithal to find Christmas paper.

Their mother spent a long time pretending to find a suitable place to set down her drink before she eventually took the proffered gift. Tear by tear, the gift emerged, an enormous framed photograph. Their mother stared at it for a full five seconds before she leapt from the chair and exploded with rage.

“You motherfucker!” she shrieked, hurling the picture across the room. It caromed off the tree and landed face-down on the floor. The dog grabbed their father’s shoe and sprinted from the room.

“Now you see?” their father asked. “Now you see what you’ve been denying me all these years?”

“Fuck you!”

“If you would, it would never have come to this.”

Abby had only caught a glimpse of the picture, but something compelled her to sneak another look. Their mother was now aiming her empty highball glass at their father and their father was shifting from foot to foot to dodge the throw. Abby reached out and turned over the picture.

She immediately slammed it down. Now everything became clear; the last six months, maybe even the last six years. Now she understood the depth of their parents’ misery. She wished she hadn’t seen anything.

Mitch leaned over and lifted the picture. For another moment Abby was forced to glimpse a life-sized photograph of their father having sex with their Aunt Kelly.

“Oh my God,” Mitch said, dropping the picture. “We are in so much trouble.”

Their mother threw her highball glass across the room, narrowly missing their father.

“Now I have no husband and no sister!” she cried, stalking from the room.

“Where are you going?” their father asked. “Don’t you want to hang it?”

“Go hang yourself!”

“Wait!” Abby cried. “Stop fighting! Mitch and I have a present for both of you!”

“You’re on your own, kids,” their mother said, sloppily juggling her car keys. “I’m leaving. Merry Christmas!”

Suddenly, Mitch jumped to his feet. “Sit the fuck down!”

Everyone stared at him. He stood on the couch, his hands clenched in tight, red fists, his chest heaving. Their father took a full step backwards. Their mother put down her keys.

“Mab,” Mitch whispered.

Abby scrambled under the tree. Behind everything, almost hidden beneath the lip of the carpet was their present, a small rectangle wrapped in humble green paper. She stood up and extended it out to her mother, then her father. “Open it together,” she ordered.

Their parents glared at each other in seething stalemate, then reluctantly stepped forward to accept the gift.

Abby stood back against the couch. Mitch stepped down and stood beside her.

Their parents stripped away the wrapping paper and stared down at the gift. It too was a framed photograph. Exactly one second later their mother gasped, and their father said: “What the sweet Christ?”

It’s almost over, Abby thought. We’re almost free.

The gift had been her idea. She had promised Mitch it would only be weird for a moment. The photo showed the twins standing together, naked, waving and smiling at the camera. Abby’s hand was clasped securely around Mitch’s penis. His hand gently cupped her budding breast.

Their father stared at the photo in bald horror. His lack of words quivered violently in his mouth. Their mother turned to their father and grabbed him by the hair.

“This is your fault!” she cried.

Then she started throwing things.


The next day Abby and Mitch were removed from their home by Child and Family Services, and they lived happily ever after.